Dr. Johnson's London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows and Female Educationby Liza Picard
The practical realities of everyday life are rarely described in history books. To remedy this, and to satisfy her own curiosity about the lives of our ancestors, Liza Picard immersed herself in contemporary sources - diaries and journals, almanacs and newspapers, government papers and reports, advice books and memoirs - to examine the substance of life in mid-18th
The practical realities of everyday life are rarely described in history books. To remedy this, and to satisfy her own curiosity about the lives of our ancestors, Liza Picard immersed herself in contemporary sources - diaries and journals, almanacs and newspapers, government papers and reports, advice books and memoirs - to examine the substance of life in mid-18th century London. The fascinating result of her research, Dr. Johnson's London introduces the reader to every facet of that period: from houses and gardens to transport and traffic; from occupations and work to pleasure and amusements; from health and medicine to sex, food, and fashion. Stops along the way focus on education, etiquette, public executions as popular entertainment, and a melange of other historical curiosities.
This book spans the period from 1740 to 1770-very much the city of Dr. Johnson, who published his great Dictionary in 1755. It starts when the gin craze was gaining ground and ends just before America ceased being a colony. In its enthralling review of an exhilarating era, Dr. Johnson's London brilliantly records the strangeness and individuality of the pastand continually reminds us of parallels with the present day.
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Dr. Johnson's London
Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows and Female Education
By Liza Picard
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Liza Picard
All rights reserved.
Facts and Figures
The population of England in 1750 has been estimated at 6,140,000. No one knows exactly how many people lived in London. There had never been a census. A Bill 'for registering the number of the people', and also marriages, deaths and births, and even the number of welfare recipients, had been thrown out by the Commons in 1753 because, as Mr Pitt said, it would be too expensive and difficult to administer, and it might even be seen as a prelude to poll tax, which would be unthinkable. Contemporaries such as Malarchy Postlethwaite suggested 1,200,000 at least, a figure adopted by The Gentleman's Magazine in its 1766 Supplement. But informed opinion nowadays puts the figure at about 650,000, plus or minus 50,000: over 10 per cent of the population of England.
London had been growing at a fairly steady rate since 1500. By 1650 it had outstripped its European competitors such as Paris and Naples, and by 1750 had overtaken Constantinople, 'Pekin in China' and Cairo. It vastly exceeded other English cities. And as well as housing permanent inhabitants, it was the centre to which perhaps one in six of the total population of England had been drawn at some time in their lives, as tourists, or to 'do the season', or for work in domestic service or apprenticeship.
What was meant by 'London'? The area of one square mile within the walls first built by the Romans, with adjacent areas or 'dependencies' in Southwark and Blackfriars, administered by the Lord Mayor of London? Or all the parishes 'within the Bills of Mortality'? This last description, usually shortened to 'within the Bills', is a reference to the parishes which were bound to make weekly returns, or 'Bills', of the numbers of births and deaths, with the causes of deaths, within their boundaries. This system had begun in 1562, mainly to provide a warning for the well-to-do of the possibility of a plague epidemic, enabling them to leave London in time. The Bills were notoriously inaccurate, but nothing had been evolved to replace them. They covered the 97 parishes within the walls, the 16 dependencies outside the walls, and another thirty or so parishes in Middlesex, Surrey and Westminster – the number of these fluctuated from time to time, as parishes were subdivided or created to keep pace with development.
By 'the City' I mean the city within the walls, and its dependencies: the area administered by the Lord Mayor. By 'London' I mean the built-up area from Chelsea to Deptford, Mayfair to Limehouse, Marylebone to Stepney – in other words, the area shown in John Rocque's Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Borough of Southwark published in 1746, and generally corresponding to the area within the Bills. As the Encyclopedia Britannica put it, in 1773, 'the form of London including Westminster and Southwark comes pretty near an oblong square, 5 miles in length if measured in a direct line from Hyde Park to the end of Limehouse ... the greatest breadth is two and a half miles'.
Two City tours
The first-time visitor to New York should take a boat round Manhattan Island. Oxford is best seen from the top of an open bus. I suggest we have a quick look at Dr Johnson's London from virtual sedan chairs, in two trips, one into the City and one round the west end. I have taken mid-century, 1750, as a convenient date. I will signal where we are, from time to time, by putting in square brackets [ ... ] a contemporary landmark, so that any tourist map will give you your bearings.
We shall begin at Temple Bar, built by Wren in 1672 at the western boundary of the City, where the Strand becomes Fleet Street [just east of the Law Courts; not the modern structure, but a narrow arch wide enough for one vehicle, with pedestrian passages on either side]. If he had designed it especially to create traffic jams, he could hardly have done better. The habit of impaling traitors' heads on approaches to the City has not quite died out: there are two still on the arch, looking the worse for wear. They have been there since 1746. This part of the City just escaped the Great Fire of 1666. Its medieval timber houses, wildly overdecorated for our pure Georgian taste, overhang the street and lean on each other for support. Dr Johnson lives in a back street tucked away on the left. Ahead of us, up Ludgate Hill, St Paul's Cathedral is already darkening from smoke pollution. Beyond it is Cheapside, a main shopping area. But we shall make a detour north, and find Smithfield – easily done, by the noise and smell of the livestock market. Beside it is St Bartholomew's Hospital, a medieval foundation now in Georgian dress. Then back again past the notorious prison of Newgate [the Old Bailey, or Central Criminal Court, was built almost on its site].
We want to make for the river. The golden fireball on top of the Monument to the Great Fire of 1666 guides us part of the way, then we can home in on the unmistakable smell of Billingsgate, London's principal fish market [demolished and redeveloped now – the smell of old fish lingered for years]. We ignore the boatmen who are shouting for our custom and walk up the muddy steps onto London Bridge. With luck you may hear the lions roaring in the Tower of London. Looking through a gap in the houses on the bridge, you can see the merchant ships and lighters packed together waiting to unload at the Custom House [still there, on the north bank of the river]. Upstream of the bridge the river is covered by small passenger craft, with the occasional royal or plutocratic private barge, like a Rolls-Royce among minis. Near the south bank are two more hospitals, St Thomas's [it has moved since 1750], and a new one founded by a millionaire [Guy's Hospital is still there, just off the Borough High Street]. Then we go to the nearest 'stairs' down to the river again, and take a boat back to the Strand.
Despite the burgeoning prosperity of the west end, it was the City that still represented power. No wonder the monarch had to stop at Temple Bar and symbolically ask the Lord Mayor for permission to enter the City.
The west end
We begin where the muddy road to the hamlet of Tottenham Court heads north, through the fields [Tottenham Court Road tube station]. Looking up it, past the 'pound' or enclosure for stray dogs in the middle of the road, you should see on the left Mr Goodge's brick-drying yards. As we turn west along Oxford Street, the chair-men hurry past the first buildings on the right. They may not be in the same parish as the slums behind us in St Giles's parish, but they have the same reputation as 'the lurking-place of cut-throats'. By the time we get to Rathbone Place we can slow down. This was the first street to be built on the north side of Oxford Street, and it has attracted fashionable residents, who can stroll up to the woods and the windmill at the end of their street. Across Oxford Street from Rathbone Place, Soho Square is lined with elegant houses from the previous century, much favoured still by foreign ambassadors.
As we continue along Oxford Street, look to your right through the gaps between the houses and you'll see open country. Berners Street leads across a patch of waste ground to Green Lane and then through fields, where the Middlesex Hospital stands. About half way along Oxford Street on our right there is a thriving market for fish and meat [Market Place]. A little further along on the left, Swallow Street [replaced by Regent Street] dives straight to Piccadilly. Then Cavendish Square on our right has some sumptuous houses in it, but there are still some vacant sites. It was planned to out-do any other square – quite a few of these squares had such ambitions, when they first came into existence – which meant that buyers were slow to commit themselves. Balancing Cavendish Square, to the south of Oxford Street, Hanover Square was completely built by 1750, of imposing contiguous four-storey houses, complete with church.
Marylebone Lane, originally a winding country track, and Wigmore Row [Street] mark the end of the built-up area north of Oxford Street. Beyond them is farming country. The only sign of city life is Marylebone Gardens, two fields north of Wigmore Row. On the south side of Oxford Street, the houses come to a stop at North Audley Street. After that there are fields on both sides of the road – it has become a road again now, Tiburn Road – as far as the turnpike gate. You won't want to go on further. You can see from the gate the three connected posts where criminals are hanged, and the gallery erected for the greater comfort of spectators [Marble Arch is very near it].
So let us turn south, down Tiburn Lane [Park Lane]. If you look to your left along Upper Brook Street or Upper Grosvenor Street, you should just see Grosvenor Square, the grandest square yet. Hyde Park stretches away to the countryside for miles, on your right. We shall make for the turnpike gate at its south-east corner [Hyde Park corner]. If we headed west, through the hamlet of Knightsbridge, we would get to the village of Kensington, but there is little else to see there except the palace. We will strike south, leaving St George's Hospital [a hotel is now on the site, which from the outside looks much as the pictures of the hospital looked] on our right. We can see another hospital far away in the fields [Chester Street/Grosvenor Place], the Lock Hospital for venereal diseases.
Our chair-men splash through the marshy fields of Pimlico, to Chelsea. Shall we rest in Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, next door to the Royal Hospital? Or call at the Chelsea Physic Garden? No, we direct the chair-men to Chelsea stairs and take a boat downstream. Vauxhall Spring Gardens [at the south end of Vauxhall Bridge] beckon from the opposite bank, but we land at Westminster stairs, just short of the elegant new Westminster bridge. The ancient buildings of Westminster Hall and the Abbey dominate a maze of medieval streets [Parliament Square].
So to keep clean as well as to avoid pickpockets we take chairs again to St James's Park. The most striking feature of the park is a massive straight 'canal' almost cutting it in half, running from near the Duke of Buckingham's house [not yet a royal residence] to the Horse Guards' parade ground west of Whitehall. Across the park is St James's Palace, where the ruling monarch lives when he is not at his palace at Kensington or in his other kingdom, Hanover in Germany. He allows Londoners to walk through the park, but not to ride in chairs or carriages or on horseback, so we pay off the chairmen and stroll through St James's Park and the Green Park to Piccadilly, where we pick up chairs again.
Going east along Piccadilly, you will see two houses to the left that are very grand indeed – far more in the modern taste than the dilapidated palace of St James – Devonshire House [demolished in the 1920s] and Burlington House [the Royal Academy]. We pass the inns where we could take a coach to the west country, and the Hay Market to the right, and go straight on along Coventry Street and through a narrow alley, emerging into Leicester Fields [Leicester Square]. Here is where the heir to the throne lives: Frederick Prince of Wales, the son of George II, who for some reason cannot stand him. Prince Frederick, sometimes known as 'poor Fred', maintains his princely Court in an unimpressive house on the north side of Leicester Fields, which is not at all a fashionable place to live. His house even has four lock-up shops in its frontage, and a miserable garden. No wonder that Fred spends most of his summer days in the beautiful gardens of Carlton House [now covered by Carlton Terrace], annoying his father.
East of Leicester Fields, through a maze of lanes and alleys, is Covent Garden. By now it has lost its first glamour. Fashionable people have moved away and small traders and brothel-keepers are taking over. But expensive carriages still come through it to drop patrons at the Theatre Royal [Royal Opera House]. Long Acre nearby is where you would come to buy such a carriage. It leads into Drury Lane, which is definitely insalubrious. If you turn left at the top of Drury Lane, you are in one of the poorest and most criminal of London parishes, St Giles. Henry Fielding, author and magistrate, lives very near, in Bow Street, and runs his court from his house. Keep going west and you arrive outside Montague House [site now occupied by the British Museum], with Bloomsbury Square close by, and the open country beyond. A little further and we have finished our tour. We are back at Tottenham Court Lane.
Fashionable London was being built on green-field sites. Londoners still lived within reach of the country. In 1763 two gentlemen walked right round London in seven hours, beginning at Moorfields, to Newington Green, Hackney, Bethnal Green, Poplar, Bow, Limehouse, New Cross, Peckham, Camberwell, Stockwell, Clapham, Battersea, Chelsea, Brompton, Knightsbridge, through Hyde Park, round Tyburn to Paddington, up the road to Islington and along the new City Road to Moorfields again. They were clearly good walkers, but how many tedious days would it take nowadays, to walk right round the metropolitan area?CHAPTER 2
London and Westminster
The City streets
When the Romans laid out Londinium with their usual efficiency, they built a road north through the gate in the walls which later acquired the name Bishops Gate, a road along the north bank of the river westwards through the gate later called Lud Gate, and another leading to the east, and they built a bridge across the Thames. The pattern they imposed on the city then has remained remarkably unchanged. Successive monarchs tried to limit the size of the city by keeping it within its walls, but all they achieved was the infilling of yards and gardens to produce labyrinthine courts and alleys behind the frontages visible from the main streets. When the City was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, the urgency of restoring trade took priority over ideal replanning, and the opportunity to create an elegant metropolis was lost. The streets were rebuilt much as they had been, with a little straightening here and widening there, but still comfortably recognisable to a former resident.
Street cleaning in the City was still under the jurisdiction of the parochial authorities. Some parishes were poor, crowded and ineffective. Others were rich, thinly populated and powerful. The parish of St Michael Bassishaw contained 142 houses, 'well built and inhabited by merchants of great reputation and fortune', who would see that their frontages were immaculate, in any case. Portsoken ward, which included Whitechapel market, had 1,385 houses and only four scavengers. In theory, the parish scavengers came round every day except Sundays and holidays, rang their bell to alert residents, and 'stayed a convenient time' for the rubbish to be brought out to their carts. It was an offence to leave rubbish about in front of your own house, and – even worse – in front of someone else's, or in front of a church. 'Throwing any noisome things' – dead cats, for instance – into the highway was just as bad.
Benjamin Franklin found when he was in London in 1742 that when they were dry the streets were never swept, and when they were wet 'there was no crossing but in paths kept clean by poor people with brooms'. The central gutters ('chanels' or 'kennels') are generally made very deep ... and with cross-chanels, render the coachway very disagreeable and unsafe', not helped by 'the too common practice of the lower sort of inhabitants and servants throwing away ashes, rubbish, broken glass ... offals and other offensive things into the streets [which] stop the current of the chanels', making the streets 'much annoyed with mud and ... very dangerous in frosty weather'.
The nature of London street dirt is demonstrated by the value put on it by the market gardeners round about, who bought it by the cartload to spread on their gardens, producing the level of fertility that astonished foreigners. It was a rich, glutinous mixture of animal manure, dead cats and dogs, ashes, straw, and human excrement: see Hogarth's print of Night, where a chamber pot is being emptied from an upstairs window on to the hat, and wig, of a passing magistrate.
Excerpted from Dr. Johnson's London by Liza Picard. Copyright © 2000 Liza Picard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Liza Picard was born in Essex in 1927, the youngest daughter of the village doctor. She read law at the London School of Economics but chose not to practice despite qualifying as a barrister. Her first book, Restoration London, was published by St. Martin's Press in 1998.
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This book is great for those not aquainted with this time period and those with extensive study. If you enjoy history AND enjoy getting a personal, private, interesting view of the people, places, and customs of a time period, then Picard is for you!